(4 out of 5 stars)
Adapting a book into a film is difficult. Broadway plays, especially musicals, can pose an even greater challenge. Film versions of plays tend to feel like an awkward cross between the stage and screen, with the director trying to incorporate the best of both worlds, usually failing. So it wasn’t surprising when fans of the hit musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” were skeptical when a film adaptation was announced. But many fears were cast aside when Tim Burton took the reigns as director. “Todd” seems like a perfect fit for Burton and thankfully he comes through, correctly balancing the feel of a Broadway play with a theatrical film.
Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) seems to have the perfect life. He has a lovely wife and child and a successful barber business. Jealous of his accomplishments, corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) frames Barker and locks him away, taking his wife and child under his protection. After 15 years, Barker is released. He returns to London and assumes the new identity of Sweeney Todd, a man desperately clinging to the fringes of sanity. He befriends an equally disturbed Mrs. Lovett (Helen Bonham Carter), who owns a meat pie store underneath his barbershop. Together, they plot a morbid revenge against Turpin with the hopes that Todd can rescue his family.
Since this is a musical, the songs are the most important aspect of the film. If the soundtrack fails, the movie fails. It’s never a worry, however, as “Todd” features excellent music. Each song is catchy and smooth flowing. The lyrics also do a great job of advancing the narrative as well as filling in important background details. My only complaint was the sound mix seemed a little off at times, especially with songs sung by Bonham-Carter. This made a few of her lines a bit difficult to understand, but it only slightly detracted from the film.
When it comes to the cast, Burton did a great job hiring actors that not only fit their roles, but who can also sing. There is no voiceover work; everybody sings his or her own part, which makes each performance much more impressive. And it’s not just Depp or Rickman, it’s the entire cast. No single actor steals the show — they all put in equally memorable performances. The biggest surprise comes from comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose portrayal of Italian barber Signor Adolfo Pirelli is both funny and convincing.
Where Burton’s distinct touch comes in is in “Todd’s” aesthetic style. The streets of London are dark and twisted, with long, narrow alleys and a constant sense of doom and gloom. This style looks good although can sometimes seem too dark. But the film’s pervading sense of darkness makes the few brightly lit and colored scenes really stand out. These shots are by far the most beautiful I’ve seen in any film this past year. Their contrast to the grey tones that saturate the rest of the film make them more vivid, which was an excellent choice on Burton’s part.
And then there’s the violence. “Todd” has always been known for its high body count, and Burton’s version is no exception. The violence isn’t over the top like “Saw,” but it is still very bloody and gory. The juxtaposition of a wonderfully composed musical to some of the most brutal violence in recent memory epitomizes dark humor in a way few other films have ever been able to do.
There’s a little something for everyone in “Sweeney Todd.” Fans of Burton will instantly recognize his trademark style and fans of Depp will be pleased with yet another excellent performance. If the fact that it’s a musical turns you away, don’t let it. Give this film a shot – it’s definitely worth it.